Evil has a spotted history, as far as video games are concerned. Despite the omnipresence of ‘bad guys’ – you can barely swing a righteously murdered minion without slapping the smug grin off some villain’s face – the concept of evil is curiously under-illuminated. Most games aren’t really interested in questions of ethics; they merely use the ancient dichotomy of good vs. evil as a convenient and ready-made means of motivating a plot and a player within it.
In the realm of the RPG, there are some examples that engage with questions about good and evil in a mature and thoughtful way. The world of the Witcher series is often a brutal place, and no matter what choices you make, you will always be a part of this imperfect, messy world. There are few true villains here, and fighting them doesn’t necessarily turn you into a hero. You can never transcend into moral purity. But neither are you allowed to sink into deepest depravity. You are caught in a moral limbo of shades of grey.
Other RPGs – say KotoR or Fable – give you the opportunity to be a proper villain, usually the kind of gleefully sadistic cartoon caricature that harms people for fun and profit. This is evil in the name of player empowerment and choice: being a cruel asshole is just another dish on the varied buffet of RPGs. It’s bland, doesn’t really go with anything and kind of looks like it may be well past its expiration date, but people still like that it’s there. After all, it’s ‘content’. It’s stuff to do. It’s fun.
When I first heard about Tyranny, Obsidian’s latest RPG, I was a little sceptical. The marketing suggested the “it’s good to be bad” philosophy of Dungeon Keeper, a simple inversion that may be humorous and perversely satisfying, but ultimately not very interesting. Moreover, they had a tough act to follow: Pillars of Eternity, as far as I’m concerned, was a genuine masterpiece and one of the very best RPGs of its kind of any period. Would Tyranny be more of the same with a different coat of – blood red – paint?
I’m relieved to say that Tyranny surprised me on many levels. Let’s start with its depiction of evil. Tyranny is set in a world of constant warfare and hegemonic evil. The Overlord Kayros – an ancient, unseen force that is more god than emperor – has subjugated nearly the whole of the known world through armed forces and the so-called Edicts, magical proclamations that can bring ruin to whole regions. The last bastion of independence is a remote region called the Tiers, a collection of small kingdoms and cities.
At the beginning of the game, Kayros’ armies, the Disfavored and the Scarlet Chorus, invade the Tiers. The former is a disciplined elite force, the latter a raging mob, and the first hours of the game are spent negotiating between the two, choosing sides, or trying to mediate. For anyone familiar with D&D, this may sound like the old-fashioned distinction between lawful and chaotic evil, and in some ways, it is. But the actual scenarios you encounter are far less dry than this abstract distinction suggests. Both factions are irredeemably evil, but you will be torn between them.
The elite Disfavored are contemptuous of the lives of ‘common’ people and gladly follow duty into whatever atrocities it leads them. But they are also honest and honour bound. The Scarlet Chorus, on the other hand, is a plague of locusts ravaging the land, slaughtering civilians on its way. At the same time, however, they are strangely egalitarian and meritocratic, allowing even their enemies to join and rise in their ranks. Make no mistake: this isn’t about moral grey areas. The Overlord and his armies are indisputably evil. But it isn’t a singular, monolithic evil, but a composite one formed by many different people and through different, often incompatible agendas. It’s a game about shades of black, not grey.